Christianity as Philosophy? (Part 2)

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To determine whether the conception of Christianity as philosophy might actually be warranted, attention must be given to the actual natures of philosophy and religion, especially as then understood.

In a previous post, Bill O’Reilly’s 2012 assertion that Christianity is a philosophy rather than a religion served as the jumping-off point for discussing some of the ancient precedents for this otherwise counter-intuitive notion. There it was granted that self-serving motives might have prompted O’Reilly’s own claim. But, because the idea itself was already embraced very early in the history of Christianity, more interesting than any attempt to explain O’Reilly’s thought process is the question of what explains the similar conclusion being reached by theologians and apologists such as Aristides, Justin, Tatian, and Clement.

To be sure, an element of self-interest cannot be entirely discounted even when looking at the examples from antiquity.

Holding a relatively new and ostensibly bizarre set of beliefs, early Christians might have hoped to lend them an air of intellectual respectability by casting them as philosophy. And yet the immediate motives which might have prompted such a description cannot, by themselves, either legitimize or de-legitimize the description itself.

To determine whether the conception of Christianity as philosophy might actually be warranted, attention must be given to the actual natures of philosophy and religion, especially as then understood.

With respect to the nature of religion in antiquity what can be said quite briefly (if, again, counter-intuitively) is that there was no such thing. As Daniel Duboisson, Guy Stroumsa, and others have argued, the concept of “religion” as most of us understand it is a construction of relatively recent origin; it cannot simply be imposed anachronistically back upon antiquity.

William Cavanaugh more pointedly makes the case that even in modernity there is no adequate concept of religion as a transcultural and transhistorical genus under which Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. might be classified as species.

That is, no definition of religion serves to include all of what most of us want to include, while at the same time excluding what most of us want to exclude. (E.g., a definition requiring belief in a god would exclude Buddhism, which most would deem a religion; replacing “god” with something like “ultimate concern” would allow for the inclusion of nationalism, which most would not deem a religion.)

Now, such arguments might be waved aside as no more than academic navel-gazing since most of us “just know” what religion is. And, of course, the sort of thing most of us intuitively consider religion was certainly practiced in the Greco-Roman context in which early Christianity grew up, just as the sort of thing most of us consider philosophy certainly was.

Greeks and Romans prayed, built temples, and offered sacrifices to the gods. They also privately and publicly debated and proclaimed firmly held convictions regarding the true and the good, and attempted to order their lives with respect to each. But—and here’s the rub—these “religious” and “philosophical” enterprises being two very different things, it’s not immediately obvious which better describes Christianity.

The inseparability of Christianity from “god-talk” might seem obviously to favor placing it in the religion category. But of course the philosophy of a Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle was not at all unconcerned with questions about the nature and existence of the divine.

Indeed, Justin Martyr had justified his own pre-Christian studies in philosophy by explaining that philosophy is “most honorable before God, to whom it leads us”; he says likewise of his finally settling into the Platonic school that he “expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.” (That Justin had so closely identified “philosophy” with “religion” even before his conversion to Christianity perhaps mitigates some of the above-mentioned suspicion that such an association was meant primarily to cast Christianity in a more favorable light.)

Further, if the point of reference is not merely god-talk but instead god-belief, a case can be made that philosophy often took the existence and nature of the divine far more seriously than did religion. To cite only one example, it’s revealing that in his dialogue, On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero assumes no conflict or contradiction in portraying Gaius Cotta as both a skeptic and a priest. The simple reason is that there was no conflict. Among the pagan “religions” of antiquity what, if anything, one actually believed was of little relevance; of crucial import was only that one—to put it crudely—“went through the motions.”

From the very first, though, Christianity was defined not by its rites but by its confession. It was defined by a statement of what was believed actually to be true (see, e.g., Romans 10:9). To be a Christian was therefore not to do what was deemed essential in the “religious” realm, but to do precisely what Justin understood to be essential for the “philosophical”—to “honor and love only what is true.”

Even setting to one side the content of the Christian confession—and, for example, the fact that the God of this confession more closely approximated that of the philosophers than those of the predominate Greco-Roman cults—its earliest theologians and apologists were hardly wrong in thinking that in its basic form and structure Christianity had more in common with contemporary “philosophy” than it did with contemporary “religion.”

As for O’Reilly? Perhaps even the blind squirrel does get a nut now and again.